WASHINGTON — Since taking responsibility for the federal action that ended in a fiery disaster at a cult compound in Waco, Tex., Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has emerged as a folk hero, the closest thing the Clinton Cabinet has to a star.
The federal assault she authorized precipitated the mass deaths of the Branch Davidian cult. But ironically her stock soared anyway as a result of her refreshing "buck stops here" attitude.
She captured television audiences during marathon post-Waco interviews and won admiration for cowing a hostile congressional interrogator. Now there are even suggestions she should be considered for higher office.
One such hint came this month at the annual dinner of the American Jewish Committee. "I know from friends in the White House that they think if there were an election tomorrow . . . I won't complete the sentence," said the organization's president, Alfred H. Moses, as he introduced Reno, the evening's keynote speaker.
The audience got the point, reacting with apparent glee and lengthy applause.
Reno remains nonplussed by the fuss, even wary of it, pointing out that such adulation can be short-lived.
"I know how fragile praise can be, and that two weeks from now I may have to make a politically unpopular decision and I won't be the talk of the town anymore, except in a pejorative way," she said in a recent interview.
Despite her 15 years of experience as an elected state attorney in politically volatile Dade County, Fla., Reno knows she still must prove herself in Washington's bureaucratic waters.
In addition to running an organization as powerful and complex as the U.S. Justice Department, she could soon be faced with the thorny question of how much influence the White House should be allowed to exert in her direction. Furthermore, she comes to the department with a ambitious--and potentially controversial--agenda for change.
The issue of White House influence arises because six of the top 10 department officials nominated by President Clinton have ties to him, to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton or Vice President Al Gore, rather than to Reno--an unusually high number when compared with recent Republican and Democratic administrations.
Among the most notable are Associate Atty. Gen.-designate Webster Hubbell, a law partner of Hillary Clinton in Little Rock, Ark., and a golfing partner of the chief executive; and Walter Dellinger, who had been associate counsel to Clinton before being named assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel, an influential post dubbed "the attorney general's lawyer."
Eleanor Dean Acheson, who has been selected to head the department's office of policy development, at least in part attributes her appointment to the "amazing serendipity of having joined somebody named Hillary Rodham in what passed for political disruption and civil disobedience at Wellesley College in 1969."
A knowledgeable Justice Department official could recall only one case in which Reno deviated from the White House list of suggested nominees, by selecting Gerald Torres as assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources division.
But Reno, in the interview, noted that she first heard of Torres from White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum.
Past attorneys general differ on how much White House influence is too much.
Griffin B. Bell, President Jimmy Carter's first attorney general, contended, for example, that an "arms length" relationship was crucial, given a typical White House's penchant for politics, particularly at election time. William French Smith, who served under President Ronald Reagan, opted for more collegiality.
In any case, it is clear that the relationship between the Justice Department and the White House must be different from that of any other Cabinet-level department. Justice is, after all, responsible for upholding the law, no matter how high in an Administration a violator may be.
Reno contended her concerns over top department nominees were "considered and honored" by the White House, a process she described as "good give-and-take." As for collegiality vs. arms length, "I think people will tell you from Miami that I could be very collegial but cussedly independent," she said. "I think the designees at this point have a great deal of independence and knowledge of the Administration that will stand us in good stead," Reno said.
"I've got to give the White House the best legal advice I can," Reno said, acknowledging, "there are small issues where people could go either way." She said, however, that should the White House attempt to intervene on a "matter of deep-seated principle--and I don't envision that would happen--I would say, 'Mr. President, I'll go home to Florida.' "
Reno clearly endorses using the "bully pulpit" platform provided by her attorney general post and her favorable reception here and around the country to bring about change.